Mad Scientist Disease

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I recently had a very encouraging session. A girl whose progress had stalled out around 650 on the GMAT wanted to come in and do one session before her test. She already had the test date scheduled and wanted to at least get a sense of direction so that we could plan out her next attempt. As we worked together however, I found that her skills were excellent. She knew all of the concepts and formulas and had a strong enough math background to do very well on the test. The problem was that she had mad scientist disease.

Now mad scientist disease is a phrase I coined for someone who upon seeing a math problem erupts in a flurry of activity. Notes are scribbled, equations laid out and many important things are figured out. The problem is that many of those things are irrelevant! What the mad scientist does is largely a waste of time. She mixes together lots of chemicals and hopes that one of the compounds she finds is useful and that nothing blows up in her face!

In the one session we had before this student’s test we talked about how to approach problems. We focused on patiently organizing thinking and planning on what needed to be solved before solving anything. I got the student to slow down and relax.

Now I can’t claim that this is a typical result, but after that one session this student’s score went up to 730! An 80-point gain in a week! And all it took was a simple cure for mad scientist disease. Slow down and plan what you’re going to do before you do it.

 Answers Don’t Crawl Out of The Rubble

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If you haven’t seen it yet, take a moment to watch this video which shows one of the more feel-good stories to come out of the horrific damage caused by the tornadoes in Oklahoma.

This woman goes into the storm with a plan. Granted, it’s not the best plan, but it’s a plan nonetheless. Then the storm comes and throws everything around and all that’s left is a pile of rubble. And somehow, under a pile of debris, appears the dog that was feared to be lost. It’s a tremendous story, but it’s not a model for you to take in your test prep.

Some students have what I call “Mad Scientist Disease”. They imagine that upon seeing numbers and equations they should immediately start performing calculations, scribbling notes so quickly that smoke rises from the paper as the sweat pours down the intensely furrowed brow. After several moments of this process they imagine that an answer will reveal itself as correct. They create rubble and hope that the thing they hope for will crawl out from under it.

Math problems are not best solved by hoping for the miraculous. Unlike the tornadoes in Oklahoma, students who go down this road are creating the disaster rather than dealing with a force beyond their control. Rather than jumping directly into calculations you should begin at the end. Figure out what it is that you need to solve for in order to find your answer and then figure out what information you need in order to get that intermediate information. Once you’ve plotted out your steps, THEN it’s safe to begin the process of doing calculations.

Planning your approach before the danger comes is the best way to minimize the danger of a natural disaster, and the best way to survive your test unscathed.